In recent years social commentators have waxed woeful about the younger woman/older man pairing that's become all but a convention of mainstream Hollywood fare in the '90s.
And for good reason: It's OK for Sean Connery to hook up with Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment or Harrison Ford to make a love connection with Anne Heche in Six Days, Seven Nights, whereas a romance between, say, Edward Furlong and Susan Sarandon would be patently unacceptable. Is that double standard due to studio heads' inherent sexism, the demands of the market or a little of both?
"Guinevere," the compelling, elegantly unfolding story of the sexual affair and protege/mentor relationship between dewy, unsophisticated Harper Sloane (Sarah Polley of Go and The Sweet Hereafter) and Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea of "The Crying Game"), a boozy, 50ish photographer, ought to be exempted from the discussion about Hollywood-style romance.
That's because director/writer Audrey Wells, who penned the screenplay for the underappreciated "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," doesn't just wink at the relationship and move on. She faces it directly, exploring the dynamics of a pairing that, after all, isn't that unusual in real life.
A scene midway through "Guinevere" demonstrates Wells' intent to penetrate the rules of attraction. Harper's mom, Deborah (Jean Smart), an icy, Harvard-educated lawyer whose bitter rivalry with her attorney husband makes for a hellish home life, shows up at Connie's bohemian San Francisco bachelor pad, a cramped, untidy place stuffed with books and photographs.
Deborah, nose-to-nose with the man she considers an unsavory cradle robber, blows cigarette smoke into his face. "Now that I look at you, I don't know how you pull it off," the haughty rescuer tells Connie, a doughy-faced guy with droopy eyelids. "What do you have against women your own age?" It's a brutal scene, and remarkably well played.
Simple awe, the kind college students have been known to feel for their professors, is the glue that binds Harper, a girl with unformed intellectual ideas and a diminutive appearance, to the underachieving, philosophy-spouting Connie.
In some ways, it's an arrangement beneficial to both, and not really driven by needs for sexual gratification: Connie, a photo artist with published books to prove it, thrives on the hero worship he receives and the chance to pass on his world view to a member of a younger generation. Insecure Harper, on the other hand, laps up the attention from someone so wise to the ways of the world.
It's a match made even more convincing by the two actors' use of physical space and conversation. Polley, already a screen veteran, conveys Harper's bewilderment, joy and eventual anger through carefully controlled expressions and adroitly delivered lines. Their characters relate to one another with great ease, joking and sharing spoken intimacies like a long-established couple. Harper quickly becomes a real presence in Connie's life, and she seems like a cherished member of his old gang during a party thrown for her 21st birthday.
But it's not exactly heaven on earth. Connie is constantly in dire straits financially, and he has a tendency to work himself into a rage over perceived grievances. "He was the worst man I ever met -- or maybe the best," Harper recalls, in voiceover, four years after the end of their affair. "If you're supposed to learn from your mistakes, then he was the best mistake I ever made."
A final fantasy sequence, which seems tacked on, is the only major misstep taken by Wells, who otherwise has turned in an intelligent, moving story of an unconventional relationship, its decline and the sad aftermath.